Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps

April 2013

The Artist as Rhoda Morgenstern: 'Victorious Losers' Rule

Yesterday, I woke up sweating — not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  I'd had one of those dreams that feel so real you can't believe it's only a dream — and you fervently wish it wasn't happening. I was floating – more like floundering – around in this dark space.  "I can't find anything!  Where's that white light you hear about?" I whined, "Why isn't God here? Where is my mother?  What happened to my lover?  Am I really dead?" 

Fortunately, I hadn't entered the nether  regions.  Yet, as I made coffee, I thought, knowing how insecure and whiny I can be, this is what the after life will be like for me: while others cozily rendezvous with their lovers or docilely chat with their Maker; I'll endlessly ask where I am (both literally and existentially) or demand that the Almighty drop everything instantly to give me a VIP tour of After Life Land.

Why had death infiltrated my dream-life?  First, because that's it's job.  Where would we poets be without love or death?  But the second reason, I suspect, for the Grim Reaper's visit was because of the sad news that Emmy-winning actress Valerie Harper has an incurable form of brain cancer.  Nothing gets our attention more than a beloved performer publicly announcing her own impending struggle with death.  If that doesn't throw us (figuratively) into the belly of the Grim Reaper – then we'd better check our pulse.  (As I write, Harper  is very much alive.  Her oncologist, she's said in interviews, has said she could live for a few more months or a few more years.)

Why has Harper chosen to go public about her terminal illness? Some of my friends are creeped out about this.  "It's morbid," a pal told me, "I feel sad about it.  But why can't she and her family keep it behind closed doors?"

On the Metro (the Washington, D.C. subway), I couldn't believe it when I heard a woman say, "Maybe she's trying to get publicity."

Right.  Emmy and Tony winning, iconic actor and TV star Harper not only needs publicity, but needs it so badly that's she's talking publicly – to strangers – about, perhaps, the most personal thing in the world – having a terminal illness.

Perhaps, Harper is coming forward about her illness so that she can tell her story before sleazy tabloids (print and digital) grab on to it.  If that's the case, I wouldn't blame her one bit.  If I were famous and dealing with an incurable disease, I'd want to deliver the news myself – accurately and on my own terms.

Harper may be controlling the story so that her situation is reported accurately.  Yet, I believe Harper is talking about having incurable cancer, to help us (her celeb peers and her fans) to live with and be more comfortable with our own living and dying. "I want to help people be less afraid," she said in an interview, "live! Don't live like it's the funeral before the funeral."

While Harper isn't, as she's said to interviewers, being "Pollyanna" about  her prognosis; she isn't giving up humor or hope.  Though she speaks of being sad, Harper still hangs out with her family and jokes about eating ice cream by the pint.  "I'm open to possibilities," she's said.

Her openness is reflective of her life.  Along with acting, Harper has worked steadily for social justice – from supporting civil rights to working to end hunger to advocating for women who've been raped.  Some people think that "there's something wrong with celebrities speaking out," Harper said in her memoir "I, Rhoda," "but I think celebrities should speak out."

Harper has spent much of her life using her celebrity to put a human face on social causes.  Now she's putting a much needed face on living and dying.

Years ago, "Time" magazine called Harper's iconic TV character Rhoda Morgenstern a "victorious loser."  (If you're not of a certain age: Rhoda Morgenstern was a character on two 1970's TV shows – "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the spin-off "Rhoda.")   The description "victorious loser" fit Rhoda to a T.  Rhoda often couldn't find a date.  She was never the prettiest or the richest girl in the room.  Her voice was the brash voice of the Bronx.  In one of my fave "Mary Tyler Moore" episodes, Phyllis (played by Cloris Leachman) is relieved to learn that her brother  Ben was gay.  Why?  Because, that ensured that there was no chance that he would ever marry that awful  Rhoda. Yet, despite all of her social awkwardness and insecurity, all of us rooted for Rhoda.  Who ever wants the most beautiful or the richest to be the winner?

Most of us creative artists –from poets to painters to playwrights – are "victorious losers."  We often make little money.  Our friends and families often haven't a clue about our work.  Our culture (at least in the United States) often doesn't value art.  Yet, our muses root for us.  When we make art, we win.

Harper dedicates her memoir to her family and "and Rhoda Rooters Everywhere."

Rhoda, we're rooting for you, now.

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©2013 Kathi Wolfe
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine - Kathi Wolfe |
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications. Her most recent Book of Poems, The Green Light, has just been published by Finishing Line Press.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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April 2013

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